Is it 30 minutes a night? Just on the weekends? When I ask around parent friends, most of us have decided on "screen time limits" of some variety. There seems to be some universal understanding that a parent who allows too much screen time is doing something deeply wrong. But what the hell IS "screen time" anyway? Clearly not all screens were created equal, so why do we feel the need to lump them all together with the assumption that all content is bad? What are we so scared of anyway?
In our house the approach so far has been: TV or tablet while dinner's cooking, poorly enforced screen-free weekends, and occasional days when I arbitrarily decide there has been way too much telly-watching going on and I ban it indefinitely with all the unpredictable unfairness of a dictator. But I've recently come to the conclusion that my decision to limit screens is lazy and reactionary, and has more to do with my own lack of self control than my daughter's.
"Screen time" as a concept is deeply flawed. It's putting quantity over quality in mediums that vary massively. Because screen time itself covers such a vast, vast spectrum of potential activities. Consuming vs creating, absorbing vs interacting, educational vs escapist. Even if we just take TV - are we really lumping reality TV, documentaries, action movies, art house cinema, the news, educational programming and cartoons together? Even just in cartoons - I would much rather my daughter watch the 1hr 34 beautiful, emotional, magical and imaginative Song of the Sea, than 10 minutes of Strawberry bloody Shortcake.
As a grown-up I know Gossip Girl does not equal Newsnight, and I have the same problem with books, getting hooked on throw-away rubbish while the intellectual tomes pile up untouched. Luckily I have never been that interested in magazines, but I do like reading the Huffington Post. Is a half hour online catching up on the news less valuable than 30 mins flipping glossy paper pages and judging celebrities on their beach bodies? Paper has no inherent superiority - lets not even go to the hours (and hours) I spent as a child pouring over the Argos catalogue.
I'm not trying to be purposefully naive. I do understand the ways in which the overuse of technology is bad. I understand its addictive quality, that it keeps your attention way too easily, reducing your ability to concentrate on less shiny wonderful things. A friend pointed out that it makes intellectual connections for you - suggesting the next destination with constant click throughs, stopping you from taking the time and effort to find those connections for yourself. I'm sure my mum was right and my eyes will go square. And the most compelling reason of all is that time spent on a screen is time NOT spent climbing a tree. But there really are only so many trees. And book-reading kids aren't climbing them either.
And just as we wouldn't want to restrict our kids access to books, neither do I want to cut off their access to the wonderful worlds they can access through screens. They're addictive partly because they're good. Too good, too fun, is that really such a terrible thing? Because for all the drawbacks, there is so much to benefit from behind those glowing little squares: the stories, the exploring, the chance to create, the worlds to get lost in, the challenges to overcome, the skills to perfect, the access to so much learning. We can all see it, so why do we resist it so much? Why are screens such a taboo?
Perhaps it's just too easy. We all know parenting is hard, but sometimes I feel duty-bound to struggle, when maybe I don't really have to. It's no accident that people use the term "digital pacifier" as either an accusation or an admission of guilt. I have long resisted actual pacifiers for my babies, but I'm almost at the stage where I can give my baby one guilt-free: she's comforted by it, it calms her down and helps her sleep - so why not? Just because it's easy, doesn't mean it's always wrong. I don't want to shove it in her mouth when she's crying with hunger or pain, there's a time and a place, but I wouldn't set an arbitrary time limit.
And the sense that easy is just not allowed comes hand in hand with a certain kind of defensive parenting. We feel the common perception is that we should limit it, so we limit it. Don't give them another reason to judge. It's easier too to follow the prevailing wind when the subject in question is so infinitely vast. The digital world may be brimming over with fantastic opportunities, but also with very real threats and dangers - who really has the time to navigate a safe path?
There's also a familiar, slightly shaky, safety net I imagine most of us fall back on from time to time. There are some parenting decisions where we can say "well it never did me any harm." With a lack of more convincing evidence sometimes that's the best we can do, but the world of screens is just too new. We've not yet watched ourselves survive to give us the confidence to know our kids will be fine too.
In fact, I think this is truly the core of what scares us. Maybe we see ourselves decisively NOT surviving this shiny new world. We can't control our own addictions to new technologies. I know I look at my phone a thousand times more than I should when caring for my girls, and my husband's default of turning to the internet for company, rather than us, is a flash-point in our relationship. Could we be projecting the shame we feel about our own screen time onto our children? We know we're modelling that addiction to our children so we rebel against it, not by limiting our own use, but by capping theirs.
In truth I have no desire to see my kids bathed in a blue glow from morning 'til night, I too want them out in the sun and the wind creating and exploring. But I'm pretty convinced time caps aren't the answer: a longed-for half hour a day will surely feed an addiction rather than curb it, and pays no heed to quality of content. If we accept screens are part of life we can set about making sure they get the best of it. Taking a smart phone out to go geocashing round the neighbourhood, romping round the zoo then looking at YouTube clips of the animal in the wild, watching a great movie together then turning it into an imaginative game, practicing letters in an alphabet app, then helping them use those new skills to sign a thank you card.
I would rather spend half my day exploring quality screen time along with my child than pass them an iPad and ignore them for two hours. Although I do reserve the right to do that too - perhaps I can spend that time working out how to use my own screens less. Maybe even climb a tree.